Parent support programs can help tackle childhood obesity

Photo: Spot Us. Creative Commons.D159

Researchers led by Justin D. Smith propose the further development and evaluation of parenting support programs that are adapted to combat child obesity.

The researchers looked at two programs that help parents manage their children’s behavior through “positive behavior support” strategies—Family Check-Up and ParentCorps. Both have produced improvements in children’s diet and exercise – with a corresponding decrease in body weight – without explicitly addressing obesity at all.

Family Check-Up improved children’s abilities to delay gratification and control their emotions. Both factors are associated in other studies with reduced weight. Studies also indicate that Family Check-Up leads to improved nutrition for young children and increases physical activity during middle adolescence.

ParentCorps is a school-based program consisting of 14 weekly two-hour group parenting sessions for adults. At the same time, their children attend sessions focusing on behavior and social skills. Participation is universal for all parents and children in a school. The parent sessions consist of discussions, role-playing, animated videos, and creating a photo book of family stories; there’s also homework. The child sessions consist of interactive activities and play.

Family Check-Up is more targeted at families that are experiencing problems with child behavior, maternal depression, poor family relationships, economic hardship and academic failure. Families receive between one and 15 support sessions involving training, role playing and video feedback on an annual basis, as indicated by their unique needs.

Enhancements of these programs to address obesity have been piloted and found to be positively received by families, but they haven’t been fully evaluated. A study is underway to test an enhanced and adapted version of Family Check-Up, called the Family Check-Up 4 Health, for families with children ages 6 to 12 years who are already experiencing weight problems.

Enhancements include working with parents to encourage diet- and exercise-related activities with their children—for example, serving healthy foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables) at mealtimes, limiting the consumption of foods that are high in fat or sugar, providing opportunities for physical activity in the home and outside, limiting sedentary activities, improving sleep routines, and including children in food preparation.

Future enhancements could also include expanded use of digital support for families, such as web- and mobile-based applications.

Early childhood is a critical time to address obesity. Sixty percent of children who are overweight during the preschool years will be overweight at age 12. Poor parenting  – including poor motivation to change, inability/unwillingness to implement recommendations for lifestyle changes, and poor parenting generally  – has been identified as a key factor.

Smith JD, St George SM & Prado G (2017), Family-centered positive behavior support interventions in early childhood to prevent obesity, Child Development